The opening of the Arctic to increased maritime activity for different purposes and by different nations is driving the need for an international forum to deal with potential security issues, two U.S. senators said on Wednesday.
The senators also said that the U.S. needs to expand its infrastructure and other capabilities in the Arctic region for disaster response, search and rescue, to advance and protect sovereign interests, and meet the needs of local residents.
“So, security is definitely a part of the picture,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), said at an Arctic symposium hosted by the Wilson Center, a policy think tank in Washington, D.C. “Here’s the problem. We don’t have a structure to deal with security because the Arctic Council’s constitution or charter explicitly says no discussions of security.”
This means that other institutions such as the United Nations come into play, he said, adding that there needs to be a discussion about a structure for security issues in the Arctic. The purpose of such a forum would be help reduce potential conflicts, peacefully resolve disputes and preserve freedom of navigation as various national interests explore the Arctic, he said.
The Arctic Council is an intergovernmental forum that promotes cooperation among the eight Arctic nations including the U.S., Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), speaking at the same event, highlighted a speech earlier this year by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at an Arctic Council ministerial meeting where he suggested that the council’s role should be expanded to include security. She said his speech “kind of rattled folks” given the council’s charter, but she noted that Pompeo was highlighting that the new reality in the Arctic is increased interests, some of which are competitive.
Murkowski noted that the following day a Finnish minister acknowledged the changing circumstances, saying “’it’s not like we can really put a do not disturb sign on the Arctic.’ We can’t do that. The investment is happening. The activity is already occurring so this is our present reality whether we like it or not.”
Murkowski pointed to Russia’s investments in its Arctic interests in port development, icebreakers and shipping. She also said that China is focused on the Arctic for science and economic reasons and is staunchly committed to a “Polar Silk Road.”
The U.S. needs a fleet of icebreakers for the Arctic and a deep water port or ports, she said, pointing out that the Senate’s version of the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act directs the Defense Department to designate at least one site for a strategic Arctic port. The bill also requires DoD and the Department of Homeland Security to do mass casualty and disaster response missions in the Arctic.
She said that passenger and cruise ships have run aground in parts of the Arctic during the past year, which means “You have to have a response plan, there’s no other way around it. As is developing our infrastructure.”
Adm. Charles Ray, vice commandant of the Coast Guard, also speaking at the symposium, said his service would benefit if the U.S. creates a deep water port near the Arctic.
King said the forecasts for ice melt in the Arctic are accelerating, which means the U.S. will be confronting issues there faster than thought just a few years ago. Another key need is the ability to navigate in the region, which he said is currently “unpredictable.”